The UFC middleweight returns for the first time in more than 16 months on Saturday following a layoff brought on by eye surgery – and a couple hints at being ready to return that wound up being more optimism than anything else.
On Thursday in New Orleans, where he'll face Jason MacDonald at UFC Fight Night 25 on Saturday, Belcher said the long layoff most definitely affected him mentally – but he doesn't plan on that being a factor on Saturday. Especially not 90 miles from Biloxi, Miss., his hometown.
"My head was a little out of the game," Belcher said of his mentality. "I hadn't given up, but I was starting to get out of the mindset. It took me a while to get back in the groove of things, but it feels better than ever now."
Belcher (16-6, 7-4 UFC) has won four of five, including four straight bonus awards. His only loss was a controversial split decision setback to Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100. But a TKO of Wilson Gouveia at UFC 107 and a submission of Patrick Cote at UFC 113 had him riding plenty of steam – before the eye injury took him out of the game.
While out for so long, Belcher said it was only natural for him to consider retirement from MMA.
"I started conditioning my mind to accept (retirement) one way or another," Belcher said. "Whenever you go that far, you're pretty much saying you're not going to fight again."
But a great thing happened to him once he tested out his eye in January, and once doctors cleared him over the summer: He got ready to roll again.
"Once I got the green light, I had to start thinking in a different way," Belcher said. "My whole thing now is I'm blessed to do the sport I'm passionate about. My new goal is one fight at a time, performing close to home, making an awesome comeback, and let's go from there. I'm just happy to be back competing."
Though Belcher admits he enjoyed some of the temporary entrapments of the non-training life while he was out, he said "every piece of the puzzle is there" for him to make the kind of comeback that gets talked about – and put him in the mix for a title shot.
"I feel like my body's the same," Belcher said. "It feels different in that my mind's been sharper. The whole (layoff) made me a better person, stronger character and personally, as a fighter, I grew. I'm bringing a lot into this fight I didn't have before."
Belcher and Yang open up the UFC Fight Night 25 card Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Spike.